The scale (or ladder) of perfection



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SECTION II

How they should do that are troubled with vain Thoughts in their Prayers

BUT thou wilt say that I speak too high in this matter of prayer, which indeed is no mastery nor difficulty for me to write it, but it were a great piece of mastery for a man to practise it.

Thou sayest that thou canst not pray thus devoutly, nor so perfectly in heart as I speak of; for when thou wouldst have thy mind upward to God in thy prayer, thou feelest so many vain thoughts, either concerning thy own business or other men's, with many other lets and hindrances, that thou canst neither feel savour nor rest nor devotion in thy prayers, and ofttimes the more thou strivest to keep thy heart the further it is from thee and the harder, and sometimes continues so from the beginning to the end, that thou thinkest all lost that thou dost.

In answer to that which thou saidst, that I spake too high of prayer, I grant well that I spake more than I myself can or may do. Nevertheless I spake it for this intent that thou shouldst know how we ought to pray; and when we cannot do so, that we should acknowledge our weakness with all humility and God's mercy. Our Lord Himself hath commanded us thus: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy might. It is impossible for any man living to fulfil this bidding so fully as it is said. Yet our Lord hath bidden us so, to the intent, as St Bernard saith, that thereby we should know our feebleness, and then humbly cry for mercy, and we shall have it. Nevertheless I shall instruct thee in this point what to do as well as I can.

When thou goest about to pray, first make and frame betwixt thee and God in thy mind a full purpose and intention in the beginning to serve Him, then with all the powers of thy soul by thy present prayer, and then begin and do as well as thou canst. Though thou be never so much letted contrary to thy former purpose, be not afraid, neither be angry at thyself, nor impatient against God, because He giveth thee not the savour and spiritual sweetness in devotion as thou thinkest He giveth to others. But see therein thy own feebleness and bear it patiently, deeming it to be (as it is) feeble and of no worth in thy own sight, with humility of spirit; trusting also firmly in the mercy of our Lord, that he will make it good and profitable to thee, more than thou imaginest or feelest. For know thou well that thou art excused of thy duty, and thou shalt be rewarded for this (as well as for any other good work done in charity), though thy mind and intention may be not so fully set upon it as thou wishest. Therefore do what belongs to thee, and suffer our Lord to give what He will, and teach Him not. Think thyself wretched and negligent, and as it were in great fault for such things, yet for this fault and all other venials which cannot be eschewed in this wretched life lift up thy heart to God, acknowledging thy wretchedness, and cry God mercy, with a good trust of forgiveness, and strive no more therewith, nor stay any longer upon it, as if thou wouldst by main strength not feel such wretchedness, but leave off and go to some other good exercise, either corporal or spiritual, and resolve to do better the next time. Though thou shouldst fall another time into the same defect, yea, an hundred times, yea, a thousand, yet still do as I have said, and all will be well. Moreover a soul that never finds rest of heart in prayer, but all her life is striving with her thoughts, and is troubled and letted with them, if she keep her in humility and charity in other things, she shall have great reward in heaven for her good will and endeavours.



CHAPTER II

SECTION I

Of Meditation

THOU must understand that in meditation no certain rule can be set for every one to observe, for they are in the free gift of our Lord, according to divers dispositions of chosen souls, and according as we thrive in that state and in virtues, so God increaseth our meditations, both in spiritual knowing and loving of Him. For whoso is always alike, and at a stand in knowing of God and spiritual things, it seemeth that he profiteth and groweth but little in the love of God, which may be proved by the example of the apostles, who, when at Pentecost they were filled with burning love of the Holy Ghost, became thereby neither fools nor dolts, but became wonderful wise, both in knowing and speaking of God and spiritual things, as much as men could in mortal bodies. For thus saith the Scripture: They were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak the wonders of God;77 all which knowledge they got by ravishing in love, through the working of the Holy Ghost within them. Divers sorts of meditations there be which our Lord putteth in a man's heart. Some of them shall I tell thee of that thou mayest exercise thyself in them. In the beginning of the conversion of such a man as hath been much defiled with worldly or fleshly sins, commonly his thoughts are much upon his sins with great compunction and sorrow of heart, with great weeping and many tears humbly and busily asking mercy and forgiveness of God for them. And if he be deeply touched in conscience for them (for then our Lord will soon cleanse him from them), his sins will seem ever to be in his sight, and that so foul and so horrible, that hardly can he be able to brook or endure himself for them; and though he confess himself never so clearly of them, yet will he find difficulty and a fretting and biting in his conscience about them, thinking that he hath not confessed right. And scarce can he take any rest, or be quiet, insomuch that his body were not able to undergo such vexation and pain, were it not that our Lord of His mercy sometimes comforteth him by the consideration of His Passion, and devotion wrought in him thereto; or by some other means as He seeth good. After this manner worketh He in some men's hearts more or less, as He will, and this is through His great mercy, that not only will He forgive the sin or the trespass, but will both forgive the trespass and the pain due for it in Purgatory, for such a little pain here felt in the remorse and biting of conscience. Also, to make a man rightly to receive any special gift or degree of the love of God, it behoveth that he first be scoured and cleansed by such a fire of compunction for all his great sins before done. Of this kind of exercise of compunction often David speaks in the Psalter, but especially in the psalm, Miserere mei, Deus -- Have mercy on me, O God.78
The Meditation Christ's Humanity is given freely by the Spirit, and how it may be known to be given by Him.

And then sometime after this travail and exercise, and sometimes together with it, such a man that hath been so defiled with sins, or else another who, by the grace of God, hath been kept in innocence, our Lord bestoweth on him the meditation of His humanity, or of His birth, or of His Passion, and of the compassion of our Lady, St Mary. When this meditation is made by the help of the Holy Ghost, then it is right profitable and gracious, and thou shalt know it by this token: when thou art stirred to a meditation in God, and thy thoughts are suddenly drawn out from all worldly and fleshly things, and thou thinkest that thou seest in thy soul the Lord Jesus in a bodily likeness as He was on earth, and how He was taken by the Jews and bound as a thief, beaten and despised, scourged and judged to death, how lowly He bore the cross upon His back, and how cruelly He was nailed thereon; also of the crown of thorns upon His head, and of the sharp spear that sticked Him to the heart; and thou in this spiritual sight feelest thy heart stirred to so great compassion and pity of thy Lord Jesus, that thou mournest and weepest, and criest with all thy might of body and soul, wondering at the goodness, the love, the patience, the meekness of thy Lord Jesus, that He would, for so sinful a caitiff as thou art, suffer so much pain; and, nevertheless, thou seest so much goodness and mercy to be in Him that thy heart riseth up into a love and a joy and a gladness in Him, with many sweet tears, having great trust of the forgiveness of thy sins and the salvation of thy soul by the virtue of this precious Passion; so that when the meditation of Christ's Passion, or any part of His humanity is thus wrought in thy heart by such a spiritual sight, with devout affection answerable thereunto, know well that it is not of thy own working, nor the feigning or working of any evil spirit, but by the grace of the Holy Ghost. For it is an opening of the spiritual eye into the humanity of Christ, and may be called the fleshly love of God, as St Bernard saith, inasmuch as it is set upon the fleshly nature of Christ, and it is right good, and a great help for the destroying of great sins, and a good way to come to virtues, and so after to the Contemplation of the Godhead. For a man shall not come to the spiritual light in Contemplation of Christ's Godhead, unless first he be exercised in imagination with bitterness and compassion, and in stedfast thinking of His humanity. Thus St Paul did, and therefore first he saith: I desired to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.79 As if he had said: My knowing and my faith is only in the Passion of Christ; and therefore he saith thus also: God forbid I should rejoice in anything, save in the cross of Christ. Nevertheless afterward he saith: We preach unto you Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. As who should say: First I preached of the humanity and Passion of Christ; now I preach to you of the Godhead, that Christ is the power of God, and the endless wisdom of God.
The meditation of the Passion is often withdrawn.

But this manner of meditation a man hath not always when he would, but only when our Lord will give it. Unto some He giveth it all their lifetime by fits, when He visiteth them; some men being so tender in their affections that, when they hear men speak or think themselves of this precious Passion, their hearts melt into devotion, and are fed and comforted thereby against all manner of temptations of the enemy, and this is a great gift of God. To some men He giveth it plentifully at the first, and afterwards withdraws it for divers causes, either if a man grow proud of it in his own eyes, or for some other sin by which he disableth himself to receive the grace; or else our Lord withdraweth it, and all other devotions sometimes, because He will suffer him to be tried with temptations of the enemy, and thereby will dispose a man to understand and feel our Lord more spiritually, for so He saith to His disciples: It is expedient for you that I go away from you [in my body], for except I go the Holy Ghost will not come.80 As long as He was with them they loved Him much, but it was fleshly according to His humanity, and therefore it was necessary that He should withdraw His bodily presence, that the Holy Ghost might come to them and teach them how to love Him and know Him more spiritually, as He did at Pentecost. Right so, it is expedient for some that our Lord withdraw a little the fleshly and bodily image from the eye of their soul, that their heart may be set and fixed more busily in spiritual desire and seeking of His divinity.
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